Sunday, December 10: Second Sunday of Advent!

Luke 3: 1-6; 15-16 (NRSV)

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

I was paging through a fashion magazine a couple days ago when a news blurb caught my attention. Apparently, some researchers at a major university recently finished a study that found that taking a hot shower or bath can actually alleviate feelings of regret, guilt, and shame. I chuckled at the news, not because it surprised me, but because it's one of those things Christians have been saying for a long time. Ever since a man called John the Baptist came bounding out of the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We recognize that something mysterious and beautiful happens when water touches the skin of a believer in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Dispelling feelings of guilt is just the start of it. A completely new person emerges from the waters of baptism. Her identity is settled once and for all: she is a child of God. Beloved by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and saturated with the Holy Spirit. All this, and the only ingredients are faith, grace, and a whole lot of water.

Anne Lamott writes that "Christianity is about water. 'Everyone who thirsteth, come ye to the waters.' It's about baptism… It's about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rains and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that's a little sloppy because at the same time it's also holy, and absurd. It's about surrender, giving into all those things we can't control: it's a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched."

Nearly every season of Advent that I can remember has included an appearance by John the Baptist. No matter how intentionally a congregation observes the Advent themes of waiting and preparation, the man who came to prepare the way for our Lord is startling. He seems out of place. His strange face certainly wouldn't make for a good Christmas card picture; it would look more like a mug shot than a cheerful holiday greeting. And yet he's the one who reminds us, year after year, that the child we celebrate is the one who saves us. He reminds us to get ready, challenges us to change, and dares us to get wet.

So a lot of churches, a lot of Christians, struggle to greet John the Baptist. He represents everything about Advent that is different from Christmas. There is a comic strip drawn by a Lutheran pastor—one that I've included in your worship bulletins a few times. In this week's edition, one of the main characters is showing off how well he is preparing the way of the Lord: his tree is up, his cards are in the mail, and he got all of his twinkling lights to work. His friend reminds him of a different kind of Advent preparation: the kind that starts with baptism. The first fellow looks forlorn. He has lights strung around his neck and reindeer antlers hanging from his Santa hat, and says, "I don't think this stuff is supposed to get wet."

We are going to remember and witness the sacrament of baptism today, and nothing could prepare our hearts more thoroughly to receive the Christ child than this. A whole lot of water is involved, and not just for Codyanne and me. Each of you will be invited to come forward and dip your hand in water drawn from the baptistery in memory of your own baptism experience. When we receive the sacrament of Communion, we take and eat a tangible reminder of God's grace. And so it is with baptism. The Holy Spirit will work through the ordinary stuff of water with a mysterious and transforming power. Once a Christian has been reborn into the heart of God, their lives are not the same as they were before. Will you feel holier? Maybe. But probably not. In the movie Tender Mercies, the rough and tough Mack is baptized as an adult. "After his baptismal service, he is driving home in his truck and his girlfriend's son asks him, "Do you feel any different now?" And Mack smiles and says, "Not yet."

And then there's the baptismal story of the highly-respected Methodist bishop, William Willimon. He doesn't literally remember his baptism. Like most Methodists, he was baptized as a baby. What's more, he wasn't even baptized in a church sanctuary, but in his family's living after Sunday Supper. He writes about how his baptism was entirely passive, that he didn't do anything but receive the gift. And yet he testifies that he was no longer just the newest member of his family; he was the newest member of God's great family, the church. He was a gift of God, and heaven was mixed up in who he was. Bishop Willimon acknowledges that his baptism could easily be criticized. After all, baptism is a sacrament of the whole church, not a private family affair. Folks like us Disciples might shake our heads and say he shouldn't have received the watery blessing until he was old enough to make a decision, and that a mere sprinkling doesn't quite get the point across.

To all that, Bishop Willimon says, "You at least must admit that my baptism worked."

I can't tell you how it works. I only trust that it does; in the moment the water rushes from your face and in every living moment that follows. God will meet Codyanne in that water, and will be utterly delighted that she has decided to respond to his call on her life. If you've ever wondered what it's like to receive an enthusiastic bear hug from God, I have a feeling it's something like getting baptized by immersion. Well, assuming the water heater is working.

In baptism, God freely gives us gifts of grace, forgiveness, love, identity, and wholeness. We cannot earn the salvation we are given through our baptism into the Body of Christ. All we can do is respond by obeying the commands that go along with it. They are few, but just as the waters of baptism continue to act within us long after our hair is dry, these commands are ours to live into, each and every day. Repent, and follow.

Repent. Turn away from the things that keep you turned away from the face of God. Turn away from sin. We Disciples aren't always so good at talking about sin; that doesn't make it any less a factor in our lives. The plain truth of the matter is this: human beings sin. We like to tell ourselves that only things like lying and cheating are sins in God's eyes, and that we're okay. But any time we fail to love, any time we put our own desires above the needs of our neighbors or the will of God, we sin. Eugene Peterson, the fellow who translated the Message Bible, believes that sin is so pervasive in our lives that when we repent we should just quit whatever it is we're doing—"no matter how hard we're trying, no matter how well-intentioned"— because it's probably wrong. He compares repentance to saying a "loud, authoritative, non-negotiable "no." No to shame and selfishness and fear. No to sin and death and confusion. No to a life lived without God at the center.

If repentance is a resounding no, then "'follow' is the yes of baptized life." Follow Jesus. Pay attention to what he did and said in the gospels. If he tells you to love your neighbor, obey. If he shows you how to be compassionate, conform. Accept him as your Lord and love him as your brother. Expect him to challenge you and comfort you. If you find that you are neither challenged nor comforted by Jesus, you probably stopped paying attention. There is always more time to repent and follow again.

Repentance and discipleship. Turning and following. This is the life we sign up for when we agree to be immersed into Christ. This is who we are and what we do, and it all begins with baptism.

Whether you encounter the living water again or for the first time today, may the parched places of your souls be refreshed. May you be unafraid to surrender to God's love, even if it means getting wet. And may you respond to this holy mystery with great joy and deep peace. Amen.


Sunday, December 3: First Sunday of Advent!

Luke 1:5-25

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’

Zechariah is one of those biblical characters I can really relate to. Maybe it's the nagging fear many preachers have that when its time to proclaim the good news, we could be as speechless as Zechariah. But all nightmares about being mute in the pulpit aside, celebrating the annunciation of John the Baptist's birth is a wonderful way to enter the season of Advent. This is a story of rational doubt and irrational hope. In good gospel form, no matter how irrational the blessing may seem, the God of Israel is at work silencing doubt and fulfilling hope.

Zechariah was a righteous and faithful priest, yet he certainly blundered his way through his encounter with the angel Gabriel. It's hard not to compare Zechariah to Mary, the other recipient of an angelic visit. Luke describes Mary as "perplexed" by the unexpected guest. There's an old painting of the Annunciation of Christ in which Mary is reading a book when Gabriel shows up; she appears to be holding up her hand as if to say, "wait, let me finish this chapter first…. Now what was it you had to tell me?" But Zechariah was miles away from perplexity. He was terrified. The overwhelming fear that charged his body wasn't the reverent fear-of-the-Lord the prophets of wisdom counseled. He was frozen with anxiety, dreading the message of this heavenly herald. To understand Zechariah's alarm we have to understand the social and spiritual impact of childlessness. Infertility, in New Testament times, was seen as a sign of divine disfavor. To be barren, in that culture, was to be cursed. Even though Zechariah was loyal to his vocation as a priest, and faithfully fulfilled the vows of his ordination, he and Elizabeth were heavy-laden with shame. If you believed yourself to be cursed by God, and you suddenly encountered one of his angels, you probably wouldn't be too enthused, either.

Even as Zechariah's heart was still pounding, Gabriel revealed the new work that God would do through the old priest and his wife. No more would Zechariah and Elizabeth live outside of the good graces of their neighbors. They would conceive the child anointed to prepare the children of God for the Messiah. They would be conscripted into the story of how our very determined God reconciles and redeems Creation. Their son would traverse a difficult path—no prophet escapes the consequences of delivering God's Word to a defiant people —but his birth would be greeted with joy and gladness.

To borrow a phrase, Zechariah was bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. No matter that he was in the presence of an angel. His response was certain: No way. He simply could not believe that this revelation was true. Even when confronted with a greater reality, Zechariah trusted that barren shame was the ultimate truth of his life. He couldn't imagine that God's love could deliver a miracle. It wasn't any lack of faithfulness on his part. He was in the middle of making an offering to the Lord when Gabriel arrived. Yet no amount of prayers and offerings prepared Zechariah for God's startling answer to his intercessions. He did not expect his prayers to be answered. His hope was tarnished by despair so persistent that he greeted an angel with suspicion. You wouldn't know it by looking at him, but Zechariah was a man bereft of hope.

Zechariah makes sense to me in the same way that doubting Thomas makes sense to me: they were faithful men who struggled with doubt. Their belief in God's goodness was all well and good until it was tested by God's goodness. Gabriel locked Zechariah's lips with a celestial zipper, enveloping him in a veil of silence until his tongue could be untied by the cries of his newborn son. When that day came, Zechariah's faith was as full as Mary's womb, and he was ready to bless the boy with a song of divine prophecy: "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Is Zechariah's story our story? If we peel away the top layer of our faith, will we find a wellspring of hope and trust in God? Or will we discover that skepticism has seeped into our relationship to the Holy?

This is a season of hope, of expectation, of waiting for God to do what God has proclaimed God will do. We rehearse the hope that has already been accomplished through the birth of Jesus so many years ago. We stand in solidarity with folks like Zechariah and Elizabeth, pondering if and when God will send the promised new life. But we also stand in solidarity with all every follower of Christ throughout the centuries who has waited for the Kingdom of God to flourish, who has hoped that the earth might be delivered, once and for all, from the ravages of sin and suffering. Our task is to trust in God's live-giving work even when the headlines cast a shadow on hope. We could easily slip into the rote and ritual of Zechariah's faith, burning the incense even though the flames in our hearts have long since been extinguished. But even the fear and despair of the skeptic can't halt the power of God.

The deepest hope of Advent, the hope that will empower us to dance to Zechariah's joyful song, is the hope that is informed by the past, fearless of the future, and rooted in the here and now. Scott Colglazier, a Disciple pastor, proclaims that "It's not what God will do that is the basis of hope; it's what God is doing that gives rise to hope, and, even more radically, what God is always wanting to do. I don't know what God will do tomorrow, but I know that today God is calling me to open my heart, live life with integrity, move toward my neighbor with compassion and justice, heal the most important relationships within the web of my life. The whole point of the spiritual journey is that God calls people to move forward with trust and courage into the future because God is taking the raw stuff of everyday living and trying to turn it, shape it, create from it something beautiful and good."

Like Zechariah, our hope and trust can easily be misplaced. We can get caught up in fear, in numbness, in doubt. All of that leaves us completely unprepared to welcome the Christchild on Christmas Day. The story of Zechariah is as good a metaphor for the Advent season as any. Today we take our first step into the season of joyous preparation for the Nativity of our Lord. And while we don't do this with Zechariah's silence, our quiet hymns of praise are easily drowned out by the nonstop Christmas extravaganza that surrounds us. We take four weeks, starting today, to steep our hearts in hope and peace and joy and love so that when the angels' song breaks forth, we are ready to join in with profound praise. In this time, we receive a gracious invitation to see and to trust– again or for the first time —how God is transforming this beloved Creation into the Kingdom of God. Not just in the past, not just in the future, but now: God is working for us, with us, and through us, to restore peace to a hurting world.

Nine months of silence was long enough for ecstatic worship to grow within a man who had given up on hope. Gabriel's promise to Zechariah is just as true for us: new life is on the way. God is doing something new, even here, even now. May we learn from his silence and his song, his doubt and his hope, and believe in the good news of Emmanuel, Christ with us. Amen.